Nicholas A. Yager

Biochemist ♦ Biomathematician ♦ Data Enthusiast

Edge-based control of disease propagation through the world-wide airport network

13 Apr 2014

This portion of the research project is complete and available for download. A draft of the associated manuscript can be read below.

Nicholas A. Yager and Matthew Taylor
Department of Biology, State University of New York at Geneseo, Geneseo, NY


Airplanes serve as vital transportation in a highly globalized and interconnected economy. Unfortunately, airplanes make it extremely easy for specific pathogens to propagate quickly and effectively to distant parts of the world. To model the spread of a pathogen through air routes, a directed network was generated using existing airports as vertices and their associated routes as edges. Airports were infected for a certain amount of time before they recover. Multiple strategies to decrease the number of infected airports were studied at a variety of efforts, or the percentage of total flights to be canceled, to determine the most appropriate flights to cancel. We found that by canceling flights based on edge betweenness centrality and clustering coefficient resulted in a significant reduction in the number of airports harboring infectious individuals. We also examined the effect of delaying our cancellation strategy on the number of airports harboring infectious individuals. We found that the greatest increase in the number of infections occurs after one week of delay, although any delay causes a statistically significant increase in the number of infections. Based on these results we suggest that the World Health Organization and the IATA develop an adequate response plan to cancel flights based on betweenness centrality and clustering coefficient in the event of a serious epidemic.


The connections that connect all of humanity form a large network of interactions and relationships. In recent years, these network edges have come under scrutiny in the modeling of information though social networks, the spread of people though transportation networks, and the prediction of infectious disease within populations.

Most of these real-world networks are defined as as small-world networks; networks that are characterized by a power-law decaying degree distribution and a high average clustering coefficient [1]. Interestingly, using airports as network vertices and routes as network edges provides a massive small-world network that reflects the travel needs of 2.86 annual airline passengers per year.

Previous research into infectious disease in small-world networks has highlighted the importance of the structural connections in the spread of disease [2]. To explore the effect of the connections between airports, we ran simulations of the spread of a disease through the airline network and implemented betweenness centrality- and clustering coefficient-based flight cancellation strategies.


Using python and NetworkX, a network consisting of airports as nodes and airline routes as edges was constructed with data from as shown in Figure 1. Nodes without inbound or outbound edges were removed. In addition, redundant edges were removed from the network.

Figure 1: Plot of the modified network exhibits degree stratification.. The light blue vertices represent susceptible airports. Simulations start with 10 airports with infectious individuals. The edges these individuals can travel on are colored green. The separation of the tight clusters in the center from the rest of the graph suggests that the network is highly stratified in the types of connections between airports.

Examination of the properties of our network yielded 39,467 edges, 3,308 vertices and has a diameter of three. We also examined the degree distribution for the airports in the network. As shown in Figure 2, the distribution follows a power law, where the vast majority of airports worldwide are smaller regional airports with 2 to 20 inbound and outbound flights. Additionally, there are few airports that have between 300 and 400 inbound and outbound flights.

Figure 2: Degree distribution for the airport network. The network exhibits a power law, with over 700 airports with a degree of 3 or less. Additionally, there are very few airports with a degree higher than 400. This implies that the topology of the network favors using a small number of international hubs to carry traffic between a large number of smaller regional airports.

We also examined the degree distribution of both a high and low degree airport's neighbors to better understand the sort of airports hub airports and regional airports are connected to. As seen in Figure 3, the distributions for large airports and small airports are highly distinct. In the case of the degree distribution for Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, ATL is connected to a wide variety of airports, including low-degree airports such as regional airports, as well as other high-degree hub airports. In contrast, Greater Rochester International Airport, a low-degree regional airport regardless of name, is connected almost entirely to airports with a degrees between 200 and 500.

Figure 3: Degree distribution for the neighbors of ATL and ROC highlights differences in network connectivity. As shown in the degree distribution for ATL's neighbors, ATL is connected to a wide variety of different size airports. Although ATL is primarily connected to airports with a degree between 12 and 54, it is also connected to airports with a degree of two as well as airports with a degree over 400. This is contrasted to ROC, which is connected primarily to airports with between 200 and 400 connections. This would suggest that high-degree hubs like ATL serve as connecting stops for flights to and from smaller airports. From this, we can assume that there will be more traffic traveling from small airports to international hubs, than there will be from an international hub to a particular regional airport.

To examine the propagation of disease through the network, we implemented an example disease based upon influenza A. As such, there were four states, susceptible, exposed, infectious, and recovered. The infection took three days to incubate and 7 days to recover from, and as such was observed to have a basic reproductive rate of 2.32. Using the aforementioned example disease, the model propagated the disease by following five rules:

  1. The disease starts randomly from 10 airports, with a higher probability of starting in high-degree airports.
  2. One plane leaves on every outbound route every tick and arrives at its destination.
  3. Airports are used as proxies for individuals harbored within the airport. This assumption is held witht he understanding that transient passengers are able to infect perminant employees of the airport. These employees are then able to pass the infection on to other individuals in the airport.
  4. Routes are directional, and each edge is weighted to represent the probability of carrying infectious individuals based upon the degree of the source and destination airports.
  5. Edge weights are recalculated after each cancellation strategy to properly model the flow of individuals around our cancellations.

To test our ability to limit the number of infections in the network, we implemented a strategy of canceling flights based on edge betweenness centrality, clustering coefficient summation, and a random implementation. For this, we calculated the betweenness centrality from each edge i to each other edge j, where σij is the number of shortest paths from i to j, such that

The clustering coefficient summation is assigned to edgeij as the sum of the clustering coefficients of vertices i and j. The random strategy randomly closes an edge in the network.


Propagation of the infection through the network can be seen in Figure 4. Starting with 10 randomly chosen airports of high degree, infectious individuals, as depicted in green, propagate along the green-colored edges. As time continues, the majority of airports infected are the highly connected airports in the center of the graph. This can be compared to the less-connected regional or public airports seen on the periphery of the graph. The simulation seen in Figure 4 suggests that infections are most likely to occur in the larger international airports, making them valid targets for cancellations and quarantine.

Figure 4: Propagation of the disease favors highly connected airports near the graph center. The infection starts in the 10 most connected airports in the network. As a result of how network weights are applied, infections are more likely to be spread to other large airports. This trend is easily visualized as the airports in the center of the graph are infected more often. Smaller regional airports on the periphery of the graph are sometimes infected, but the rate of infection is much lower when distant from the central, highly connected networks.

To collect a large enough sample size, 343 simulations were performed for each strategy at 20 cancellation efforts at a 5% interval. As such a total of 20,580 simulations were performed, and the number of airports harboring infected individuals was used to the determination of the optimal strategy. We chose to examine five cancellation efforts, namely 0%, 10%, 30%, 50%, and 80%. All strategies within the five cancellation efforts were determined to be normally distributed using a Shaprio-Wilk test (a = 0.05). An analysis of variance was performed, and we found that strategy (D = 4, F = 52730.4, p < 0.001 ), effort (D = 2, F = 640.8, p < 0.001) and their interaction (D = 8, F = 2037.3, p < 0.001) were all significant factors.

A Tukey HSD test was performed, as shown in Figure 5. We found that in efforts under 30%, the application of a random cancellation strategy will increase the number for airports containing infectious individuals. We also found that in high cancellation efforts the clustering coefficient strategy resulted in the greatest decrease in the number of airports with infectious individuals. In a moderate effort, such as 30%, betweenness centrality is the optimal strategy, and is statistically different that the 30% clustering coefficient-based strategy. Specifically, a 30% betweenness centrality approach provides a mean decrease of 32.1%, whereas a 30% clustering coefficient approach provided decrease of 30.9%. It should also be noted that a 50% cancellation effort using a clustering coefficient strategy reduced the number of infections by 49.3%.

Figure 5: Betweenness centrality and clustering coefficient cancellation strategies prove effective at moderate cancellation efforts. The Tukey HSD test suggests that a 30% betweenness centrality-based cancellation is statistically different from the similar 30% clustering coefficient-based strategy. We also found that at very high cancellation efforts, the random strategy has better returns that all others due to the random nature in which it totally disrupts the transportation network.

We tested our cancellation strategies while implementing delays in when cancellations took place. We tested delays of 0, 7, 14, 21, and 28 days. An one-way ANOVA test was performed, and we found that the effect of the delay was statistically significant (DF = 4, F = 1291.4, p < 0.001). We also performed a Tukey HSD test, and we found that each of the delays were statistically different. The critical point in the effectiveness of the cancellation strategies seems to be around 14 days after infection. It should be noted, however, that all delays decrease the effectiveness of our cancellation strategies.

Figure 6: Cancellation delay has a significant impact on the effectiveness of cancellation strategies. A Tukey HSD test applied to delayed cancellation strategies. The test suggests that all of our tested delays were statistically significant. In addition, we found that the delay with the greatest change in the number of airports with infectious individuals is around the 14 day mark.


The cancellation of specific airline routes effectively mitigates the spread of an infectious disease in the airline network. In the case of betweenness centrality, previous findings support the efficacy of of edge betweenness centrality in the control of an infectious disease 3.

Clustering coefficient-based flight cancellations are novel in that they target flights based on the clustering of their connecting airports. Since the clustering coefficient targets vertices based on the degree to which they are connected to their local cluster, the metric tends to target routes between smaller regional airports as opposed to large international traffic hubs. As a result, closed flights from smaller airports would tend to be lower traffic flights between distinct economic markets.

As an interesting result of our model, some cancellation strategies result in a net increase in the number of airport with infectious individuals. A random cancellation strategy with a 10% effort effectively increases the number of airports with infectious individuals by 7.6%. This novel result would suggest that an inadequate response to cancellations would result in more infectious individuals being rerouted to connecting airports that they would not have traveled to under normal circumstances. The unintended consequence of increasing the number of infections lends credence to the necessity to choose wisely and act swiftly in the control of infectious diseases.

Our study is systematically different from other research of this type. Namely, our simulations include all 3,308 viable airports and 39,467 routes. This contrasts with a study performed by Marcelino and Kaiser which focused only on the largest 500 airports in the network 3. Interestingly, our data confirm their findings that connectivity plays a strong role in the spread of disease globally. In addition to network size, our model is unique in that our stochastically-chosen starting locations provides us a more complete understanding of how the diseases propagates through the network as a whole.

The testing of delays in cancellations provides us useful information about the importance of when to implement a cancellation strategy. Our model suggests that a control strategy should be in place in under a week for optimal results. The model also predicts that after two weeks the number of airports with infectious individuals will increase by as much as 20%. As stated by Walter Gaber in 2009, the ability to detect infectious diseases and properly control them becomes crucial 4.

In conclusion, our results suggest that flight cancellations can be an effective means of controlling the propagation of disease. Furthermore, we recommend a strategy based on betweenness centrality or clustering coefficient implemented within a week of initial exposure.


  1. Amaral LAN, Scala A, Barthelemy M, Stanley HE. 2000 Classes of small-world networks. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 97;21. DOI: doi: 10.1073/pnas.20032719.
  2. Amaral LAN, Guimera R. 2004 Modeling the world-wide airport network. Eur. Phys. J B. 38, 381-385. DOI: 10.1140/epjb/e2004-00131-0.
  3. Marcelino J, Kaiser M. 2012 Critical paths in a metapopulation model of H1N1: Efficiently delaying influenza spreading through flight cancellation. PLoS Curr. April 23. DOI: 10.1371/4f8c9a2e1fca8.
  4. Garber W, Goetsch U, Diel R, Doerr HW, Gottschalk R. 2009 Screening for Infectious Diseases at International Airports: The Frankfurt Model. Aviat Space Environ Med 80:595-600.